“Do I really need a monster gravel bike?”, I hear you ask, “I’m not even sure what one is.”
To which I respond, “In the true spirit of N+1 bike law, with N being the number of bikes you own versus how many bikes you ‘need’, then yes, you do.”
Now, let’s talk monster gravel bikes. Or Monster Droppies as the cool kids say nowadays.
What is a monster gravel bike
Post that search query in YouTube and you’ll get some pretty awesome examples of home-made rigs from around the world. ‘Monster Gravel Bike’ is a loose term, certainly, but let’s be honest, so is ‘gravel bike’.
With formal gravel bike racing still in its infancy, everyone seems to have their own take on what constitutes a gravel bike, and those opinions are largely aligned with each person’s preferred type of riding – road or MTB.
The monster gravel bike sub-genre is much easier to define, with the following characteristics highly desirable:
- drop bars
- weight-carrying capacity
- good low-end hill grinding gears
- very good high-end gears
- large volume tyres with low rolling resistance
- front suspension fork
- under 12 kg ready to ride
Basically, you want to be able to ride this thing on mixed surfaces for 100+ kilometres at a noteworthy pace without feeling like your back, neck, and perineum are exploding.
Let’s dissect each of those desired characteristics.
A monster gravel bike needs to be able to handle a long day out riding on mixed surfaces. While it is designed primarily for fast riding on dirt roads, it should also hold its own on the road and the green trails at your local bike park.
“Do I really need drop bars? My mates will call me a roadie.”
Perhaps, but you won’t hear them once the headwind strikes and you can get down on the drops. You don’t have to go super-narrow like a road bike, and nor do the drops have to be vertical.
Get a pair of gravel drop bars with a slight flare so your elbows and shoulders can relax. Budget brands like Entity sell a very good 500mm-wide flared drop bar for around $50 AUD. Also see what they’ve got at your local bike shop – You might be surprised!
Ignore your mates. You got it bro, Monster Droppies rule! 😎
This isn’t about bike-packing, though that’s a fair call too. It’s more about rider weight. Folks who favour monster gravel bikes for racing are usually on the more muscular side than the average roadie. They have upper and lower body mass, they like torque and aren’t afraid of interval training.
When there’s a tailwind behind, they like getting out of the seat and up on the big chain ring and belting out a few hard sprints when they can. To that end, a heavier rider cares more about avoiding pinch flats and sore joints than shaving off a few kilos of bike mass.
Good low-end gear ratio
Thus far, most long distance gravel bike races don’t have too many terror-filled climbs, but as the sport continues to develop, this is likely to change in order to add new challenges to the boring flat trail races which are common today.
For that reason, really low climbing gears (a.k.a. ‘granny gears’) aren’t a huge priority for racers at present. Bike-packers however would definitely find them useful.
Very good high-end gear ratio
On the other hand, a big chainring and tiny top cog on the cassette are highly desirable. To save replication here, hark back to the paragraph on weight-carrying capacity.
High volume tyres with low rolling resistance
Now, when I say high volume here, I mean relatively compared to road bikes. We’re not talking fat bike high volume.
Again, gravel bike racing is in its infancy. Meanwhile, every rider as well as every bike manufacturer is somehow speaking with authority on all the scientific intricacies of this new cycling discipline.
Thus, and armed with a background in the automotive and industrial tyre industry, I’ve been watching the toing and froing of opinions about the ideal gravel bike tyre size. The norm seems to change at a blistering pace.
One of the things that constitutes a monster droppie is versatility due to tyre choice. Tyre width, and therefore diameter and volume (since tyre profile is 100% of tyre width), provides that versatility.
Using lower pressures in a large volume tyre increases rolling resistance which in turn provides better traction at lower speeds, while increasing pressure decreases rolling resistance, thus providing higher speed but less traction. This is common of any tyre, even a road bike tyre, but with purpose built high volume off-road tyres, these factors are greatly exaggerated.
Performance can be finessed with much more accuracy and effect than with a narrow 700-something. And frankly, by the time you get up to 700×40, we’re talking about a 29×1.75 so why not just get a mountain bike tyre? It’s the road bike brigade’s attempt to keep everything aligned with road specs rather than face the truth that a 29 inch tyre will fit on a 700c rim and vice versa, width permitting.
As for keeping tyres narrower, a narrow tyre is never, ever, ever going to provide the versatility of a high volume tyre with the right tread pattern at the right pressure. Add to this, the higher rolling circumference of the larger diameter tyre, which combined with torque and high cadence on a big chainring, exponentially boosts top end speed capability.
Tyre choice is probably the most important part of a monster gravel bike. Somewhere between 1.75 and 2.25 would be optimal widths with the right tread pattern. Remember you’re after a fast rolling tyre with a little bit of traction. Maximum inflation capacity of 60 psi is ideal but 50 might do at a pinch. Try to keep the tyre weight under 700 grams and go tubeless if possible.
Front suspension fork
But the cool kids on ‘real’ gravel bikes reckon that a carbon fork is the duck’s nuts. A fully-rigid bike on a rough road, at high speed, in a race. Yep, OK.
This is another one of those ‘authoritative scientific truths’ I hear a lot nowadays, usually espoused by bike manufacturers who’ve worked out it’s cheaper to make a carbon fork than buy in a Fox step-cast, and meanwhile charge more for the privilege.
First, a suspension fork isn’t just about taking big hits. It’s about the subtle movements it makes every time you hit a small bump or some loose pea grit or a corrugation on the side of the fire road. The suspension fork is constantly absorbing and relaxing. Coupled with the flexing of your high volume tyre, it is providing you with vastly superior handling, steering, and comfort.
Carbon fork and a skinny tyre? No thanks.
Under 12 kilograms ready to ride
“Dang,” I hear you exclaim, “That’s pretty light for a chunky bike.”
Yes, it is. That said, my Ridley Sablo XC race bike is 10.4kg and it’s dual suspension, so getting a hardtail under 12 shouldn’t be a massive challenge.
Remember, you’re not making an enduro bike. You don’t need big Fox 40 suspension on the front. A 32 with 80-100 mm travel is heaps. The Fox 32 step-cast forks are very light – I run them on the Ridley and my Giant monster droppie.
Second, get your tyres under 700 grams each. Most brands list the weight of their tyres both on their websites and the tyre packaging so you can see the weight before you buy. Also remember, you don’t need to run the heaviest case either.
Third, compare the weight of your pedals. I run clipless Shimano SPDs on all my XC bikes and they’re often half the weight of full platform pedals.
There are lots of weight savings to be had, and at the end of the day, if your bike is a kilogram or two beefier than you would like, it won’t be the end of the world. Perhaps just as important is rider weight. Often the easiest way to drop bike weight for a race is to focus on your diet leading up to an event.
So that’s your introduction to monster gravel bikes or monster droppies – that term is really starting to grow on me. I must be becoming one of the cool kids 😛
In coming days, I’ll post a follow-up article showcasing my 2017 Giant XTC which I’ve converted from XC hardtail to a full-blown monster droppie.
I love it to death and I hope it gives you some inspiration.
Chat you later – Love y’all heaps!
Andrew loves XC. That’s it, nothing else. OK fat bikes too. And a bit of road cycling. And track. I mean, seriously, who doesn’t like a good sprint around a velodrome? And building trails. Gravel bikes are cool too. Sometimes he dabbles with enduro. But yeah, XC rules. Never doubt it.